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Sir George Back Fonds (P238)

Observations on the Aurora Borealis by Captain Back (detail), 1833-1835. Gift of David Ross McCord and Rev. Normand Pares, Sir George Back Fonds P238, M2634 © McCord Museum

The splendour of the Arctic's aurora borealis, as captured by explorer Sir George Back

"[October 28th, 1833] [...] I went out, and placing myself in the shade of a fir tree of thirty feet high, looked directly to the zenith and to the westward - (the sun being too bright to look to the eastward), when there appeared a very faint and filmy arch of pale white, that issued from a mass of white cloud precisely similar in shape to the horse-shoe mass of aurora of last night in the same place[.]"

Europeans had many reasons to explore the Canadian Arctic during the 19th century: the search for the Northwest Passage, a need to map the area, scientific and ethnographic studies, the search for commercial opportunities, not to mention personal quests for adventure.

The 1833-1834 overland Arctic expedition led by Sir George Back was his third such voyage. It enabled the legendary British naval officer, explorer and artist to survey and map the Great Fish River (or Thlew-ee-choh) located in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. It is now known as the Back River. Back recorded his observations of the aurora borealis in this journal and drew these ink and watercolour illustrations. It is apparently the first Arctic expedition journal to discuss the aurora borealis. This document is an extraordinary record of the "Arctic Quest" that inspired generations of explorers and adventurers.

P238 Sir George Back Fonds. - 1819-1878. - 9 cm of textual records.

Biographical Sketch

George Back -- naval officer, explorer and artist -- was born in Stockport, England, in 1796. In 1808, he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a First Class Volunteer. The following year, he was taken prisoner by French soldiers and held in France until his release in 1814. Upon his return to the Royal Navy, he volunteered for the Arctic expedition led by Captain John Ross. He was appointed midshipman on the HMS Trent, under the command of Captain John Franklin. Sailing from England in April 1818, this initial expedition failed when the ships were blocked by ice. However, Franklin had noted Back's artistic talent and consequently asked him to join his Arctic overland expedition of 1819-1822, the goal of which was to explore the northern coast of the North American continent from the mouth of the Coppermine River eastward. Back earned praise for the numerous drawings he made and for saving Franklin's team from starvation by going ahead to seek assistance from local Aboriginals. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in January 1821, even before the expedition was over.

A short time later, Franklin began organizing a second Arctic overland expedition with another officer; when the latter died, Back stepped in to replace him. After wintering in Fort Franklin, near Great Bear Lake, the expedition began travelling up the Mackenzie River in June 1826. At the mouth of the river, the group split into two parties: Franklin and Back headed west, while another party led by John Richardson explored eastward. Franklin and Back made it as far as Return Reef before deciding to turn back due to dwindling supplies. They reached Fort Franklin on September 21, after having explored 370 miles of previously unmapped coastline. Back's drawings were used to illustrate Franklin's published account of the voyage.

After Back returned to England in 1827, his health began to fail and he decided to visit the Continent for some rest. When he learned of Captain John Ross's disappearance in the Arctic in 1832, he offered to lead an overland search party northward up the Great Fish River (later named Back River). Sailing from Liverpool in April 1833, Back stopped in at Fort Alexander and Fort Resolution before wintering at Fort Reliance, at the easternmost edge of the Great Slave Lake. In spring 1834, when he heard that Ross had been found, he decided to continue exploring the Great Fish River and the seacoast adjoining its mouth. When he returned to England, Back was promoted to Captain (Navy) and elected a member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1836. Unsurprisingly, he was appointed to head another Arctic expedition. As commander of the HMS Terror, he travelled to the northern end of Hudson Bay, where the ship was beset by ice in August 1836. When finally freed the following spring, Back was forced to head back to England in a badly damaged ship. Despite the failure of the expedition, he was showered with new honours, including a knighthood in 1839.

Thereafter, Back enjoyed a comfortable life in London and, despite his poor health, maintained an active interest in Arctic exploration. In particular, he helped organize the 1847 search for the lost expedition of Captain John Franklin and, in the 1850s, was a member of the Arctic Council, which advised the Admiralty. He was awarded an Honourary Doctorate in Civil Law by the University of Oxford in 1854. Although retired, he continued his involvement in the Royal Geographical Society, serving as its vice-president for seven years. George Back died June 23, 1878, in London.

Scope and Content

The Sir George Back Fonds focusses primarily on his activities as a sailor, explorer and artist. It chronicles his discoveries in Canada's Far North along with his impressions of the area, the lifestyle of its inhabitants and exploration in general. There are notes about Arctic lichens, the north canoe and the equipment and clothing needed for travel in the North. The fonds also contains correspondence and a notebook with copies of letters sent to British government officials and Hudson's Bay Company employees during his 1833-1835 expedition. Two handwritten journals document Franklin's overland Arctic expedition of 1819-1822, while another journal contains Back's observations and illustrations of the aurora borealis, made during his 1833-1835 expedition.

Several personal and biographical documents -- a Back family tree and the transcription of a newspaper article about Back's death -- complete this collection.

Source of title proper: Title based on the creator of the fonds.

Immediate source of acquisition: The documents were acquired by David Ross McCord from Reverend Norman Pares, a great-nephew of Sir George Back.

Arrangement: A new descriptive record of the fonds was written in 2004, thanks to a grant from the Canadian Council of Archives.

Language: The documents are in English and French, but primarily in English.

Availability of other formats: The George Back Fonds is also available on microfilm. A typewritten copy of the 1819-1822 journal was created and is available for consultation.

Associated material:

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge: Sir George Back Fonds (MSS 395, 869, 907, 1316)

Royal Geographical Society: Sir George Back Collection (ar GB402 SGB)

Glenbow Museum: Franklin Expedition and Arctic Exploration Collection

LAC: George Back Fonds (MG24-H62, R3881-0-6-E) and David Ives Bushnell Collection of Canadiana (MG30-B166, R4976-6-4-E)

Related groups of records: The Sir John Franklin Fonds (P242) preserved at the McCord Museum documents his Arctic expeditions.

The Museum also has the following works in its Rare Books collection:

RB-0095, RB-0181, RB-0436: Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River [...] (London, 1836)

RB-0443: Narrative of a journey to the shores of the polar sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21, and 22 [...] (London, 1823)

RB-0444: Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the polar sea, in the years 1825, 1826, and 1827 [...] (London, 1828)

General note: Several engravings, prints and watercolours associated with Back are also preserved in the McCord Museum's Paintings, Prints and Drawings collection.

The fonds is divided into the following series and subseries:


Last update: August 30, 2017